Hal Gould, who was a force of nature when it came to photography, died June 25 at the age of 95. A photographer and photo dealer, Gould was also an advocate for photography’s place in the fine arts — a campaign he led long before the idea became fashionable or widely accepted.
Born in 1920 in Wyoming, Gould grew up in New Mexico on his father’s ranch. At the age of twelve, in 1932, he got his first camera, a Kodak box camera. He was able to purchase it by having saved up the money that he had earned selling Liberty magazine subscriptions.
Gould didn’t plan on being a photographer: he went to Baylor University to study dentistry. But he was drafted into the Army during World War II, cutting short his dental studies. After his discharge, in 1946, he went to Chicago with the aim of learning photography and in that pursuit he took courses at various art schools including the Art Institute of Chicago. The Windy City was a hotbed for fine art photography at the time, and Gould was deeply influenced by the experience.
In 1950, he left Chicago for Caper, Wyoming, and then, in 1955, for Denver, where he opened The House of Photography in the Cherry Creek neighborhood, a commercial studio. Despite his day job as a commissioned portrait photographer, Gould was doing fine art prints in his spare time. And he started mounting photo shows in a storefront on Colfax Avenue. One of the shows he presented there paired up Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and though their work is today highly prized and very expensive, at the time, he was not able to sell a single print with some of them priced as little as $15. This tells us that in the 1950s, running a photo gallery was nothing other than a labor of love, which is why Gould held onto that commercial studio — he needed to make a living.
In 1963, discouraged in no way by his failure to sell fine art photos in Denver, Gould and more than a dozen other like-minded souls founded the Colorado Photographic Arts Center and the Upper Level Gallery. The former was dedicated to promoting photography as an art form while the latter, located upstairs, was a venue for the sale of fine art photos. Then in 1980, Gould who had been presenting shows in the Upper Level Gallery since the start, pulled out when he and the CPAC board had an acrimonious split. At that time he closed his commercial studio and opened the famous Camera Obscura Gallery which he ran until 2011 when he closed up shop. During its heyday, Camera Obscura was one of the most famous photo galleries in the country.
Many will recall that Camera Obscura was like a photographer’s treasure chest — crammed full not only with a dizzying array of photographs, many by some of the biggest names in the field, but by acres of supporting documents and miles of shelves of books on the topic. It’s amazing that the old townhouse where it was located, right across Bannock Street from the Byers-Evans House, didn’t collapse under the weight. The mood of the place was unlike the chaste white rooms of a contemporary gallery; rather, it was a cozy and old fashioned kind of place, the way galleries were a generation ago.
Gould essentially retired as a dealer when he closed Camera Obscura though he continued to attend events in the art world and even more astoundingly, continued to take photos with his enormous cameras, despite his great age and his consequent frailty.
His photographic work is included in many collections, notably that of the Denver Art Museum. Over the decades he won numerous awards for his photos and for his photo-advocacy so it seemed right that in 2012, CPAC, clearly burying the hatchet with him, established the prestigious Hal Gould Vision in Photography Award to recognize those in the community who, like Gould, have worked to promote the medium.
Hal Gould’s life is a reminder to all of us that one person really can make a difference.